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Monday, 18 April 2005, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK

Going undercover for the story

Undercover reporting may sound glamorous to some but it's an exhausting and dangerous assignment, as BBC reporter Simon Boazman reveals.

Oakington Immigration Reception Centre

Someone once described undercover research to me as being similar to walking the high wire at the circus.

It's a mixture of balancing the camera work, the legal issues, editorial decisions and ethical dilemmas; just trying to make it through to the end, but in constant danger of falling off, hitting the ground at a pace, scaring the kids in the front row and generally ruining everything.

Well luckily I think we made it through without scaring anyone.

Over a four-month period late last year I worked at Oakington Reception Centre as a Detention Custody Officer and one of two undercover reporters for the Real Story - Detention Undercover programme.

The film set out to expose antisocial to criminal behaviour within the private sector-controlled Detention Services.

"The long-term undercover process itself was, for me, a battle of mental and physical

Simon Boazman

While I worked at the Global Solutions Ltd-run centre at Oakington, Andy Pagnacco would work on the transportation side for the same company.

During this time I gathered an insight into the motivation of asylum seekers and the people paid to look after them.

Oakington Reception Centre is an immigration fast-track facility, set in the leafy countryside outside Cambridge.

Distress to detainees

Since it opened in 2000 it has housed more than 40,000 asylum applicants. At any one time, up to 450 of the political asylum seekers held there are enjoying the Immigration Department's seven-day fast-track assessment process - the government's response to calls to speed up the removal of illegal entrants.

This process, which involves a series of interviews over an average of 14 days, will decide the validity of their case.

If refused asylum (as 98% at Oakington are), detainees will be deported. If they gain asylum they are released into the community.

Of course things don't run like this. I estimated that around 70% of those refused asylum were released into the community, as there were not enough resources to either hold or transport them.

"Luckily I played for time, hid most of the kit and prayed that no-one noticed the sweat on my brow"
Simon Boazman

As Oakington primarily houses those detainees whose applications are unlikely to succeed (and they think they will be deported), the atmosphere within the centre was one of subdued frustration.

Detainees spend their time waiting: for immigration interviews, for responses from legal representatives, for visits from family, for one of the most important decisions of their lives.

The detention custody officers are simply waiting to go home. I entered the workforce in September, after a five-week training course, and set out to gain the confidence and friendship of the officers.

Most of them were just trying to get though the day without incident and their views on asylum applicants, although never positive, were kept to themselves.

For certain officers, though, who featured in the film, containing their opinions proved impossible; causing distress to detainees, through racism and abuse, was their sport.

Abuse and poverty

I found the detainees harder to define. They came from numerous countries and cultures and had a variety of motivations.

I heard some tragic tales of abuse, poverty and desperation - and aspirations. I also saw evidence of serious criminal activity.

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the immigration process is not a simple story.

Detainees told stories of abuse, of poverty, of war and of religious persecution. The officers told stories of suspicion, tricks, lies and crime. The truth, I think, lies somewhere in-between.

The long-term undercover process itself was, for me, a battle of mental and physical strength.

Spending 12 hours a day, up to six days a week, working in a prison, conscious of your conversation, aware of your personal space - alongside learning a new job - was exhausting.

A wrong word and it's all over. Although human nature means that a rhythm naturally develops, this can be shattered by the unexpected.

Like when two of the most aggressive officers decided that I needed a refresher in detainee searching, with me in the cell, playing the detainee.

Even if I hadn't been concealing three feet of wire and a camera this would have been intimidating.

Luckily I played for time, hid most of the kit and prayed that no-one noticed the sweat on my brow.

On another occasion, an officer grabbed my camera unintentionally and asked if I was "wearing a wire".

"No ******* way," I replied in a pitch slightly higher than normal.

There were, as you would imagine less taxing moments, some even enjoyable.

I came third in the annual golf tournament, although I don't think I will go back to collect the trophy.

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